Posted by: dstieglitz | June 28, 2013

The Battle for Talent

“The only thing worse than training employees and losing them is not training them and keeping them.”    – Zig Ziglar

      A CEO recently lamented that his company’s revenue was flat and profits were down. The company had won new customers but was having difficulty filling key positions even with help from a top recruiter. Furthermore, no move-up candidates were available internally and several mid-level employees had left to take positions elsewhere. His company was losing the battle for talent because its growth strategy did not include a leadership development and retention program.

A Risky Approach.  Organizations that lack effective training programs are forced to offer lucrative compensation to buy superstars in the open market – a time-consuming, expensive, and risky approach. The problem is that everyone pursues the same talent. Organizations that consistently grow leaders produce better results. The issue isn’t just that organizations don’t develop the leadership, management, and technical skills they need to succeed. It is even more troubling: the organization underperforms when the business grows faster than the staff’s capabilities.

Sink-or-Swim.   Another symptom of a weak developmental program is promoting employees into key positions hoping they already know or will learn what they need to know. After congratulations, a salary bump and a new title, sink-or-swim promotees receive little help in understanding – let alone conquering – the challenges of their new position. Conversations to set expectations, establish metrics, and mentor usually do not occur. The sink-or-swim approach to promotions produces one of three results:

  • They will succeed on their own (which may be how you did it)
  • When results fall short, you will step in to fix the problem, or
  • Eventually they will leave, be demoted, or be fired.

It’s more effective and easier on everyone to avoid fix-it-later by having developmental conversations early and often with your high potentials.

The Responsibility to Develop Others.  Next to setting the strategic direction, a leader’s most important responsibility is to develop people. Effective development programs produce a steady stream of fully qualified candidates that flows from the bottom to the top. Yet few organizations make coaching, training, and developmental assignments a cornerstone in their growth strategy. The problem starts at the top when CEOs neither mentor their CXOs nor insist that CXOs mentor their direct reports.

Hiring Choices.  Hiring only exceptional employees is a given, of course, when new skills or more heads and hands are needed – but it is not sustainable as the primary way to find leaders. Hiring leaders costs too much and is more prone to error than promoting an employee who has institutional knowledge and established internal and customer relationships. Furthermore, many business stars change organizations so frequently that they fail to master the skills required at one level before moving up to the next. You may just be hiring someone else’s flash-in-the-pan who won’t be able to reproduce their prior successes in your organization.

Promotions.  When evaluating candidates for promotion, remember that effective leaders are defined as much by how they think as by the skills they possess. Specifically, they:

  • Have a passion for what they do, and pursue goals with diligence and intensity
  • Collaborate with others, share information, and volunteer to help
  • Feel personally responsible for what happens. When things go right, they share credit; when      things go wrong, they fix what’s wrong rather than blaming someone or      something else.
  • Are curious learners who take risks, learn from results, and adapt easily to change
  • Do what they say they will do because their word is their bond.

These criteria sometimes seem soft to executives accustomed to making promotion and hiring decisions based on the superior skill in the previous position or as a reward for performance. When you consider that you’re not just filling an open position but are building the organization’s leadership inventory, hiring and promotion decisions takes on great importance

Mentoring Is Essential.  Executives who view a job as a set of goals to be achieved miss the importance of developing people. Each rung on the ladder involves new priorities, more complex skills, and a different blend of leadership and management tasks than the previous one. The conversion of success at one level to success at higher levels requires you to mentor people rather than assume they will be able to do the new job. The need to mentor is even more vital when a key position is filled with a new hire. People who move up a level when they join an organization are particularly at risk. In addition to tackling new responsibilities, they must build new relationships, learn new processes and tools, and adapt to a new culture. They need more mentoring than a person who is promoted from within.

Bottom Line.  Most executives acknowledge their responsibility to develop people. Yet few know how to do so – and even fewer make it a priority on a daily basis. Yet with a bit of planning, you can meet short-term objectives and grow people concurrently. Start by asking about successes and failures: why a seemingly solid strategy produced mediocre results, how a key deal was won, and why a critical deadline was missed. As a successful executive, you have felt the pressure of working with limited resources, meeting tight deadlines, and achieving stretch goals. Share your stories with your people by explaining how you conquered some challenges and struggled with others. Encourage them to have similar conversations with their people. Develop your people in every conversation you have with them no matter what the topic.  


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